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Barron's Booknotes-Moby Dick by Herman Melville
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CHAPTER 55: OF THE MONSTROUS PICTURES OF WHALES
CHAPTER 56: OF THE LESS ERRONEOUS PICTURES OF WHALES, AND THE TRUE PICTURES OF WHALING SCENES
CHAPTER 57: OF WHALES IN PAINT; IN TEETH; IN WOOD; IN SHEET-IRON; IN STONE; IN MOUNTAINS; IN STARS

In these chapters Ishmael describes centuries of whale-inspired art to remind you of the species' importance to mankind. Egyptians and Greeks sculpted the whale; the noted English artist, Hogarth, painted him, as did more scientifically inclined artists. But all such portraits are inaccurate, Ishmael says. Accurate depictions of the whale can't come from studying a dead whale cast up on a beach, or from studying its skeleton. The only way to know the whale is to go whaling, and risk your life. The search for complete knowledge, Melville is saying, can be both futile and fatal.

Ishmael does admit, however, that a few adequate portraits of whales do exist, especially those painted by the French. Other good representations have been carved by whalemen on whale teeth and bones. The outline of a whale can be glimpsed on mountain ridges and in star constellations. Whales-to Ishmael and to Melville (and, they hope, to you too)- are to be seen in the entire universe.

CHAPTER 58: BRIT

The Pequod moves through a large "meadow" of brit, a yellow substance (probably tiny crustaceans) on which right whales feed. The right whales Ishmael sees look more like lifeless masses of rock than living animals. In fact, according to Ishmael, few sea animals resemble those living on land. The sea is an unknown; it is a foe, not just to man but to its own offspring; and it is treacherous-its most dreaded creatures swim invisible just under its lovely blue surface.

Ishmael then asks you to think of the land. Isn't the division between land and sea like the division within our own souls? Just as the appalling ocean surrounds a peaceful island like Tahiti, terrible fears surround the peaceful center of man's soul. Don't try to leave that peace, Ishmael warns; you can never return to it.

NOTE: IMAGES OF THE SEA

Once again the ocean is a symbol for Ishmael. When he stood on the masthead the sea looked dreamily peaceful, though he knew it could kill him if he fell. Now he has a much bleaker view of it-an indication, perhaps, that his time aboard the Pequod is making him lose some of his optimism.



CHAPTER 59: SQUID

On a morning so quiet the waves seem to wear slippers (notice the lovely rhythms of Melville's descriptions here), Daggoo sights a strange white object and shouts out, "The White Whale!" But when the boats reach their goal they discover the object is an enormous long-armed squid. Starbuck looks on the squid as a grim warning; many sailors, Ishmael says, hold similar views of the animal, because so little is known about it. Once again the mysteries of nature seem to be beyond man's understanding.

CHAPTER 60: THE LINE

One of the most important pieces of equipment in whaling is the line attached to the whaleman's harpoon. The line is just two-thirds of an inch thick, and is more than 200 fathoms (or 1200 feet) long. It must be coiled very carefully because in the frenzy of a whale hunt a tangle or kink could slice off a person's arm. Or a person could be dragged into the ocean by the whizzing rope.

NOTE: WHALING AS A METAPHOR FOR LIFE

Melville points out that the voyage of the Pequod is not so different from your daily life. All people "live enveloped in whale lines"- any could meet death at any moment.

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Barron's Booknotes-Moby Dick by Herman Melville
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